- Laughing Together? TV Comedy Audiences and the Laugh Track
This study contributes to the underexplored area of TV comedy audiences with an examination of viewer perceptions of the laugh track. Drawing on previous literature on the historical development of this device and on current practices in TV comedy production, I examine concurrences and discrepancies in a comparison of the intended functions of the laugh track and the ways in which it has been perceived by “viewers at home.” The discussion is based on my analysis of data from twenty-five focus groups with British and Norwegian research participants and is part of a larger project that examines the significance of gender and nationality in audience engagement with TV comedy. Laugh tracks were discussed in all of these focus groups, and while it was covered by a predesigned question scheduled for the final part of the discussion, participants in the British groups often introduced this topic early in the session. This indicates the perceived significance of this device for many British participants. My analysis of these debates focuses on two emerging themes: first, the idea that the sitcom or sketch show laugh track permits or demands a reciprocal response, and second, distinctions between authenticity and artifice in the use of such laugh tracks. Further, the article examines nation-based differences in focus group debates around these two issues, arguing that diverging viewpoints can be linked to ideas of nationally distinct humor and “national comedy” as well as to historical differences in the two countries’ TV comedy production. However, prior to this discussion I consider previous academic literature on the laugh track and outline the key methodological issues of this study.
Theorizing the Laugh Track
The laugh track can be seen to have two key functions. One of these is to offer individual viewers a sense that “we” are all watching and laughing at the program together, as a collective audience. As Medhurst and Tuck write about the sitcom, it “invites the viewer to feel at one with the few dozen people s/he can hear laughing, and by extension with millions of others across the country” (45). A second, related function of the laugh track is to ensure that the comedy feels like a “safe” space where it is okay to laugh at people’s misfortunes or transgressions (Neale and Krutnik 69). In this way, viewers are reassured that everything is just a joke, and we are all laughing together. However, while the laugh track can be seen as a way to make broadcast comedy feel like a social experience, TV critics have also complained that audiences are “being told when to laugh” (Smith, Vocal Tracks 38). The use of this device in sitcoms and sketch shows can be seen as an attempt “to close down alternative readings of its content, by suggesting that if you’re not laughing at one of its jokes, then you’re the only one” (Mills, Television Sitcom 51). In contrast, Mills suggests that the absence of a laugh track on more recent productions, such as the British sitcom Peep Show (Channel 4, since 2003), “allows for polysemic readings, as it fails to signal concretely what is supposedly unquestionably funny” (“Paranoia” 63).1
The two interlinked functions of the laugh track—to present broadcast comedy as a live social experience and to emphasize its “comic impetus” (Mills, The Sitcom 5)—highlight broadcast comedy’s historical roots in live entertainment. These earlier cultural forms include North American vaudeville and British music hall (as well as similar forms in other Western countries), which were popular from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. However, while some TV comedy shows are broadcast live, most sitcoms and sketch shows are of course recorded and only shown later. This means that viewers are dispersed across different locations at the time of [End Page 24] broadcast, while time-shifting devices such as personal video recorders (PVRs) and DVDs also enable users to watch TV comedy whenever they please. Nevertheless, the laugh track continues to suggest a live performance and a collective audience united in time and place. Why has this remained so important?
One potential reason is...